https://www.davidalton.net/media/Click on this link for the power point presentation which accompanies this talk.
: David Alton (Professor Lord Alton of Liverpool) Seoul, September 2012.
In setting the scene and in speaking about how we move from documentation to advocacy, let me begin by describing how I first became involved in human rights advocacy. I will then say something about what we can learn from the experience of the Cold War and the Helsinki Accords (2). Then something about North Korea’s human rights abuses (3), and, finally, what we should do (4).
1. How I Became Involved
In 1979 I was elected to the British House of Commons and began to see reports from the Keston Institute, founded by the Revd.Canon Michael Bourdeaux about the plight of persecuted Christian in the Soviet Union.
In 1959 Michael had spent a year in Moscow as one of the first British exchange students permitted to study there. In Britain he had been asked to take a note to some Christians in Moscow and in discovering them he also discovered that there were only 41 Russian Orthodox churches still functioning out of the 1600 which had existed before the 1917 Russian revolution.
Michael later said: “No-one wanted to believe it – everyone wanted better relations with the Soviets – yet the truth had to be told. “Peace and friendship” on everyone’s lips in Moscow, while churches were being closed, most outstanding bishops brought to court on trumped-up charges, some martyred for their faith.”
On his return to the UK Michael established Keston College.
Keston’s detailed and highly respected reports left no doubt about the scale and intensity of the persecution. The factual authenticity and reliability of the information which they produced and their independence of government and propaganda outlets was the key to their effectiveness and impact.
For years western policy makers and diplomats had been urging “quietism” about human rights abuses in the USSR – believing advocacy would make “a bad situation worse.”What Michael’s reports underlined was that suffering
Russians wanted their stories told and that quietism had been interpreted as indifference. Much the same might be said of the West’s attitude towards North Korea, at least until the last few years.
Keston College never saw its role as a campaigning organisation. Its mandate was to collect, assess and disseminate information.
One of the cases which it highlighted was that of the Siberian Seven – seven Pentecostals who had taken refuge in the US Embassy in Moscow and remained there from 1978 until 1983.
Their plight came to the notice of a remarkable young Anglo Indian, Danny Smith, who was making his career in journalism, media and communications. Mentored by George Verwer, of Operation
Mobilisation, and Peter Benenson, the Catholic-covert who founded Amnesty International, Danny set about the creation of Jubilee Campaign.
We met at the House of Commons; I agreed to work with him in trying to secure the release of the Siberian Seven. We began a systematic approach to enlist other MPs , held vigils at the Soviet Embassy and met with the Soviet Ambassador. After the Seven were freed and, as the cases and information from Keston College multiplied, in 1987 we launched the Jubilee Campaign in Parliament. In 1987 Jubilee Campaign’s inspiration was – and remains – Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which declares:
“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” (see also: https://www.davidalton.net/2012/04/05/the-pain-of-the-suffering-church-celebrate-conference-april-2012/)
2. What We can Learn From the Experience of the Cold War and Helsinki Accords
After the freeing of the Siberian Seven it became clear to me that many of the countries who had signed the Universal Declaration honoured this provision more in its breach than in its observance.
In the 1980s I travelled to the USSR, and at the Kremlin raised the cases of some of the brave and inspirational Jewish Refuseniks and Christian dissidents whose families I had clandestinely met in Moscow and Leningrad. These included Vladimir and Marsha Slepak; and Ina Begun, whose husband Joseph, was incarcerated.
In Leningrad I met with Tanya Barinov, whose husband, Valerie, a Christian rock musician, had been jailed by the State. She showed me some of the many letters she had received from people in the West and which had given her encouragement and strength. Knowing you are not alone is crucially important.
I later accompanied and helped import the first legal printing press into the USSR and Alexander Ogorodnikov, who had spent many years in jail, was waiting to receive it at Moscow airport. Ogorodnikov was chairman of the Russian Orthodox Argentov Seminar. He came to a mature religious belief only after he had been educated within the communist system and was therefore categorised as mentally ill. Alexander spent most of the decade from 1976 behind bars, being released in 1987 by Gorbachev after a worldwide campaign.
In Ukraine I met Ivan Gel and Bishop Pavlo Vasylyk – who had spent 17 and 18 years respectively in Soviet prisons, mainly at Prem, the Camp of Death. I met the bishop’s young chaplain, who had been sent to Chernobyl to clear radioactive waste – without any protective clothing – as a punishment for celebrating the liturgies in the open. Their Greek Catholic Church had been illegal for 43 years – all of their churches suppressed by Stalin.
Every day ordinary people laid flowers at the sealed gates of their churches, and every day the communist authorities removed them. But they returned again, the next day, fortified by their faith that one day change would come.
In Romania I met the saintly Cardinal Todea – who had spent 14 years in Ceausescu’s prisons, deemed “an enemy of the state” and campaigned for Georgie Calciu – an Orthodox priest whose hands had been broken to prevent him making the sign of the cross, and who was down to six stone in weight. He had been jailed for ten years and had shared a prison cell with the remarkable Pastor Richard Wurmbrand.
Subsequently I met pastor – now Bishop – Lazlo Tokes, who at Timisoara became the inspiration for the Romanian revolution. Today he is a member of the European Parliament.
In 2006 I hosted the visit of the brave electrician who climbed over the fence at a shipyard in Gdansk, Poland to my university in Liverpool, John Moores University. Lech Walesa, who would become President of Poland, had been a key player in the launch of the Solidarity movement – Solidarnosc – Poland’s first independent trades union; the catalyst for extraordinary and historic change.
When, in the summer of 1980, the great strike had erupted at Gdansk’s Lenin Shipyard, the immediate cause had been price rises. But although the Baltic workers had acted spontaneously, they had showed tactical sophistication, enough to stay united and avoid being provoked into violence. They had also grasped a crucial truth: peaceful moral protests were a form of resistance to which Communist regimes had no answer.
This realisation had owed much to brainstorming by Poland’s tiny “democratic opposition” in the 1970s and the crucial role of Poland’s religious faith.
But it had been taken further by Pope John Paul II’s historic nine day pilgrimage a year earlier, in June 1979: nine days that changed the world.
When Solidarity was formed, it needed a source of moral authority. This was why it had turned to the Church, and why Catholic symbols were used to express its aims and ideals. Pope John Paul II said of that period:
“Warsaw, Moscow, Budapest, Berlin, Prague, Sofia and Bucharest have become stages in a long pilgrimage toward liberty. It is admirable that in these events, entire peoples spoke out — women, young people, men, overcoming fears, their irrepressible thirst for liberty speeded up developments, made walls tumble down and opened gates. ” And he said of the fall of Communism…
“… It fell as a consequence of its own mistakes and abuses. It proved to be a medicine more dangerous than the disease itself. It did not bring about true social reform, yet it did become a powerful threat and challenge to the entire world. But it fell by itself, because of its own inherent weakness.”
During that period I was struck by the extraordinary courage of many of those involved – summed up by memorable graffiti slogan: “If not now, when? If not us who?” It took real courage to answer those questions in the affirmative: to believe you were the man or woman and that this was the favoured time.
Many paid a terrible price; some, like Lech Walesa’s countryman, Jerzy Popieluszko, the ultimate one. Popieluszko was appointed by Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski as chaplain to the steel worker in Warsaw and became a central spiritual advisor to many who followed Lech Walesa and his Solidarity movement. The price he paid was brutal murder. 400,000 Poles attended his funeral in 1984.
Popieluszko had presided over many public masses during the rise of Solidarity. Consistently he urged his listeners – Solidarity’s numbers were approaching some 10 million people by the peak – to refuse to be goaded into violence. . Popieluszko said:
“Do not struggle with violence. Violence is a sign of weakness. All those who cannot win through the heart try to conquer through violence. The most wonderful and durable struggles in history have been carried on by human thought. The most ignoble fights and most ephemeral successes are those of violence. An idea which needs rifles to survive dies of its own accord. An idea which is imposed by violence collapses under it. An idea capable of life wins without effort and is then followed by millions of people.”
After the collapse of the Berlin Wall the stories of those who suffered the real heat of persecution for their political or religious beliefs became known. We called it a Cold War but for men like Lech Walesa or Alexander Ogorodnikov it was not a Cold War but one in which they suffered in the furnaces.
In “The Gulag Archipelago” Alexander Solzhenitsyn describes the corrupt and evil nature of the edifice which Stalin and his cohorts had constructed. He says of this society: “There is – only a wall. And its bricks are laid on a mortar of lies…There is no law. The same treacherous secrecy, the same fog of injustice, still hangs in our air, worse than the smoke of city chimneys. For half a century and more the enormous state has towered over us, girded with hoops of steel. The hoops are still there. There is no law.”
As the following stories demonstrate, this is North Korea today.
3. What Is Happening In Noryh Korea Today and Why Human Rights Must Be our Central Concern
Lee Keumsoon was deported back to North Korea from China in 2004, after being arrested for crossing the border illegally. Her story is one of many which illustrate why human rights must be the central question in our dealings with the DPRK.
Lee Keumsoon was a young woman whose precise age remains unknown. She originated from Hamgyeongbuk-do, Undok, and crossed the border into North Korea hoping to earn some money and to improve her life. During her time in China she became pregnant.
A central tenet of North Korean ideology is belief in the purity of its blood line – a racial ideology which it holds in common with the blood-based nationalism of the Japanese colonial period. Becoming pregnant with a Chinese man, or another foreigner, is seen as a contamination of the blood line. Women who are with child and returned to North Korea know that they face forced abortion.
When Lee Keumsoon was repatriated she attempted to hide her pregnancy whilst serving her prison sentences at Cheongjin-si province police holding camp in North Hamgyong Province. In August 2004, after working long hours of forced labour on the construction of the Seongmak power station, and subsisting on paltry rations, she experienced a significant deterioration in her health. Sent by the supervisor to carry stones from the river bed Lee drowned. The summer monsoon had led to the river rising and there was a strong current.
Witnesses, one of whom later fled to South Korea and made a statement about these events in 2011, said that whenen fellow inmates recovered her corpse from the river and stripped the body they discovered that Lee was wearing several layers of clothes and also a tightly wound kudzu rope around her stomach to hide her swelling belly. The witness said: She was an Undok girl and she didn’t even tell her fellow prisoner from the same area. It’s because they are, without exception, aborted if they don’t hide it….”
Following Lee’s death camp supervisors stripped clothes off of other female prisoners to establish whether other were also pregnant. The witness said that these measures were taken to ferret out pregnant women and to abort them.
The international community, which for so long has appeared indifferent to the fate of women like Lee Keumsoon should remind itself of Dietrich Bonheoffer’s warning that “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil.”
Bonhoeffer perished at the hands of the regime which was responsible for racial cleansing, slave labour, brutal torture and manifold abuses of human rights.
It is difficult not to see parallels with a country where the United Nations and human rights organisations say that an estimated 200,000 people are trapped in network of gulags and camps. The testimonies of survivors leave the world with no opportunity to plaintively assert that it did not know.
Sobering accounts abound.
Professor Vitit Muntarbhorn, the previous United Nations Special Rapporteur on North Korea, told me that he estimates that 400,000 people have died in North Korea’s prison camps in the last 30 years. Muntarbhorn, like his successor, Indonesia’s former Attorney General Marzuki Darusman, has been refused all access to North Korea.
Professor Muntarbhorn, who ended his term of office in 2010 and earlier in the year had appeared before my Parliamentary Committee, has described North Korea’s human rights record as “abysmal” due to “the repressive nature of the power base: at once cloistered, controlled and callous.” The exploitation of ordinary people, he said, “has become the pernicious prerogative of the ruling elite”.
All eight of Muntarbhorn’s reports to the UN detailed an extraordinarily grave situation, in which he says the abuses are “both systematic and pervasive”and “egregious and endemic”, and he has concluded that “it is incumbent upon the national authorities and the international community to address the impunity factor which has enabled such violations to exist and/or persist for a long time.”
Professor Muntarbhorn has further recommended that the UN consider “whether the issue of violations in the DPRK will be taken up at some stage at the pinnacle of the system, within the totality of the United Nations framework,” and has called on the international community to “mobilise the totality of the United Nations to promote and protect human rights in the country; support processes which concretise responsibility and accountability for human rights violations, and an end to impunity.” In his final report, the outgoing Special Rapporteur concluded:
“The human rights situation in this country can be described as sui generis (“in its own category”) … Simply put, there are many instances of human rights violations which are both harrowing and horrific…. It is thus essential to mobilise more comprehensively the international system, especially the United Nations and all its affiliates, to act in a more concerted manner.”
Professor Muntarbhorn believes that some 300,000 people have fled the country, many of whom have died as they make the perilous journey into China across the Tumin River. Those who survive face the constant danger of repatriation. If returned to North Korea it leads to their incarceration and, if they are caught, it leads to unspeakable violations of human rights.
On 27 September, 2010 an editorial in The Times entitled Slave Statepowerfully summed up the situation:
“The condition of the people of North Korea ranks among the great tragedies of the past century. The despotism that consigns them to that state is one of its greatest crimes.”
The former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, remarked that:
“The biggest scandal in progressive politics is that you do not have people with placards out in the street on North Korea … The people are kept in a form of slavery, 23 million of them, and no one protests!”.
My own interest in North Korea began through an encounter with Yoo Sang-joon, a North Korean Christian who had escaped from the DPRK. At the request of Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) he came to see me at Westminster in 2003. Yoo Sang-joon himself became an Asian Raoul Wallenberg – the Swedish diplomat who saved thousands of Jewish lives during the Holocaust. Yoo Sang-joon bravely re-entered North Korea and has helped many people flee across the border. This led to his arrest in China in 2007, but, on compassionate grounds, China relented, allowing him to be repatriated to Seoul knowing that in the North he would be executed.
Since we met I have chaired several open hearings at Westminster and elsewhere where we have taken evidence and heard firsthand accounts from North Koreans who have escaped. I have travelled to North Korea four times and most recently I met with the North Korean poet and human rights campaigner, Jang Jin-sung, who told me that too often geo political crises and security considerations have taken precedence over concern for human rights.
I have raised the general issue and individual cases in Parliament, with the North Korean authorities, and in several reports, which are available on my web site.
Yoo’s story was particularly harrowing and disturbing. He told me how he had seen his wife, and all bar one of his children shot dead. He subsequently escaped across the border to China with his one remaining son. The boy died en route.
Yoo encouraged me to read the prison memoirs of Soon Ok Lee, Eyes of the Tailless Animals . Through books like this and Barbara Demick’s book, “Nothing to Envy” we glimpse the sham judicial system, the show trials, the starvation, the forced labour, the degradation, humiliation and rape of prisoners and the brutality, corruption, paranoia and inhumanity. These issues inspired the publication of the 142-page Havel/Bondevik/ Wiesel, report ‘Failure to Protect: A Call for the UN Security Council to Act in North Korea’ – the launch of which I chaired at Westminster. It requires the United Nations to take seriously their declared doctrine of “the responsibility to protect.” (see also: Cambridge University Lecture https://www.davidalton.net/2011/02/11/north-korea-lecture-cambridge-2011/).
It is hard not to be reminded of life in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago – the “chain of islands”, the archipelago of labour camps and prison camps spread across the USSR – which were known only to those who were unfortunate enough to enter them. Solzhenitsyn remarked that “someone that you have deprived of everything is no longer in your power. He is once again entirely free.” and that is undoubtedly the case with those who bravely risk so much in telling their stories in order to help others and to bring an end to the gulag system in North Korea.
I have been particularly struck by the dignity, integrity and bearing of women and men who have suffered so much. None more so that Shin Dong-Hyok, whose story is movingly told by Blaine Harden in “Escape from Camp 14”, extracts of which were serialised in 2012 by BBC Radio Four. I have now met Shin several times. It would be impossible not to be deeply affected by both his story and by his demeanour. Despite everything that has been done to him and his family he still loves his country and wants the best for North Korea and its people.
Shin is thirty and spent the first 23 years of his life in North Korea’s Political prison Camp 14, where he was born in 1982. Camp 14 is one of five sprawling prison camps in the mountains of North Korea, about fifty five miles north of Pyongyang. No one born in Camp 14 or any other political prison camp – “the absolute control zone” – had previously escaped from North Korea. These are places where the hard labour, the malnutrition, or freezing conditions, minus 20 Celsius in winter, will often get you before the firing squad.
When he was 14 years old, his mother and brother were executed in front of him because they tried to escape. He was held for seven months in solitary confinement. The torture he faced was unimaginably inhumane. With extraordinary dignity and lack of bitterness, he described at Westminster how he was hung upside down by his legs and hands from the ceiling. His torturers pierced his groin with a steel hook; he lost consciousness.
Guards bound the hands and feet of the 13-year-old boy and roasted him over a fire. The burns still scar Shin’s back, the memories have indelibly scarred his mind; and he remains haunted by the double life he was forced to lead and the lies he had to tell to survive.
“Afterwards, me and my father could not mingle with other prisoners and we had to work even harder than the rest,”he said.
Shin told my Parliamentary Committee that as a child, he witnessed fellow child prisoners being killed through accidents and beatings. He told me that children and parents were required to watch and report on one another. He was forced to work from the age of 10 or 11.
On another occasion, Shin was assigned to work in a garment factory. Severe hard labour is a common feature of North Korea’s prison camps. He accidentally dropped a sewing machine, and as a punishment the prison guards chopped off his middle finger. According to Shin, couples perceived by the authorities to be good workers are arbitrarily selected by prison guards and permitted, even forced, to get married, with a view to producing children who could, in turn, become model workers. Children born in the prison camp are, like Shin, treated as prisoners from birth. As a child in the prison school, Shin recalled the teacher, who was also a prison guard, telling the children that they were animals whose parents should have been killed. He told them that, by contrast, he, the teacher, was a human, and that they should be grateful to be alive.
Shin also recalled seeing, while at school, a seven-year-old girl in his class being severely beaten because she was discovered to have picked up a few grains of wheat on the way to school. The beating continued for two hours, and her classmates had to carry her home. She died the next day.
In 2004, at the age of 22, Shin met a fellow prisoner who had seen life outside the camp. This prisoner described the wider world to Shin. Initially, Shin did not believe him. His entire life until then had been spent behind the barbed wire of the prison camp, and he thought that this was the extent of life. Eventually, the other prisoner convinced him, and Shin’s curiosity developed. Together, they decided to try to escape, and in 2005 they put their plan into action. What then followed is a story of agony and ecstasy. In a written testimony available on the internet, Shin recalls:
“stabbing the sole of my foot when I passed through the wire. I almost fainted but, by instinct, I pushed myself forward through the fence. I looked around to find the barbed wire behind me but Park”—
“was motionless hanging over the wire fence! At that desperate moment I could afford little thought of my poor friend and I was just overwhelmed by joy. The feeling of ecstasy to be out of the camp was beyond description. I ran down the mountain quite a way when I felt something wet on my legs. I was in fact bleeding from the wound inflicted by the barbed wire. I had no time to stop but sometime later found a locked house in the mountain. I broke into the house and found some food that I ate, then I left with a small supply of rice I found in the house. I sold the rice at the first mining village I found and bribed the border guards to let me through the North Korean border with China with the money from that rice.”
Shin described first seeing the country of North Korea outside the prison camps, and said that, to him, it looked like paradise.
In Shanghai he found a way over the wall of the South Korean Consulate and, after 6 months there, he was allowed to travel to Seoul. Physically and emotionally Shin was deeply scarred.
Shin was joined at our Parliamentary Hearing by Ahn Myeong-Cheol, aged 37, who worked as a prison guard at four political prison camps – also within the “absolute control zone” between 1987 and 1994. His story appears in“They Are crying for Help”.
He described how his father killed himself when he realised that he had been heard criticising the regime; his mother and brothers were sent to prison camps; Ahn was re-educated and became a prison guard in the “absolute control zones.”
Vividly and harrowingly he described how he witnessed guard dogs imported from Russia tear three children to pieces and how the camp warden congratulated the guard who had trained the dogs; he said that even when prisoners died they are punished- their corpses and remains simply left to disintegrate and rot away on the open ground.
We heard from Lee Young-Kuk, once part of the presidential bodyguard, who told us:
“From the very first day, the guards with their rifles beat me. I was trampled on mercilessly until my legs became swollen, my eardrums were shattered, and my teeth were all broken.. they ordered me to stick out my shackled feet through a hole on my cell door, and then tortured them in almost every possible way. Not a single day passed without receiving some form of torture and agonizing experience”.
Lee Sung Ae told Parliamentarians about how when she was jailed, all her finger-nails were pulled out, all her lower teeth destroyed, and prison guards poured water, mixed with chilies, up her nose.
Jung Guang IL described how he was subjected to “pigeon torture”, Hands cuffed and tied behind his back in an excruciating position, he said he felt as though his bones were breaking through his chest. All his teeth were broken during beatings and his weight fell from 75kg to 38kg.
Kim Hye Sook was first jailed when she was aged 13 because her grandfather had gone to South Korea. She spent 28 years in the prison camp; was forced to work in coal mines, even as a child, and witnessed public executions.
Kim, like Shin Dong-Hyok, was incarcerated because of any crime which they had committed – it was simply guilt by association, becoming victims of North Korea’s punishment of family members for up to three generations if a relative is said to have committed a “crime”.
Particularly harrowing was the evidence given by two diminutive North Korean women who, speaking through an interpreter, recounted their experiences in North Korean concentration camps. From time to time their stories were interrupted as the women wept.
Jeon Young-Ok, aged 40, had gone to China to raise money to feed her children:
Caught in 1997 and again in 2001 she was sent to Northern Pyeong-an Detention Camp.
“I saw and experienced unimaginable things. We were made to pull the beards from the faces of elderly people. Prison guards treated them like animals. The women were forced to strip. A group of us were thrown just one blanket and we were forced to pull it from one another as we tried to hide our shame. I felt like an animal, no better than a pig. I didn’t want to live.”
Jeon Young-Ok added: “They tortured the Christians the most. They were denied food and sleep. They were forced to stick out their tongues and iron was pushed into it.”
Despite all this, she harbours no hatred for her country and shows extraordinary fortitude and equanimity: “The past is not important but these terrible things are still happening in North Korea. These camps should be abolished forever.”
Jeong-ai Shin was held in Camp 15. Conditions were so perilous that 1 in 10 of the 200 inmates was dead within the year. She described a regime comprising of hard labour, starvation and infectious diseases.
In 2011 Mrs Kim Hye Sook, an artist, gave evidence and spoke of her 27 year incarceration in Yodok prison camp, where she was taken aged 18. Around 50,000 people are imprisoned there. She showed her paintings depicting the suffering she experienced first-hand. Mrs Kim used the pictures to explain what a normal working day in “Camp 18″ was like: from the manual labour undertaken by prisoners and scarcity of food provisions to the regular public executions and cannibalism. She spoke about the death of her son in the camp. She then produced a map she had drawn from memory of the layout of the camp.
Listening to her evidence, Rajiv Narayan of Amnesty International said that the numbers of incarcerated person might be rising. Mr Narayan added that Amnesty estimates that two of every five prisoners die in the camps. He showed a DVD entitled “Hell holes: North Korea’s secret prison camps” and which may be viewed on You Tube.
These accounts have come from survivors but many will never be able to tell their stories. In addition to those who have died of hunger and exhaustion in the camps, capital punishment has been used routinely.
And the situation has not been getting better: in one recent year there were 52 executions since the failed currency reforms of December 2009, including the Minister of Railways Kim Yong-Sam and Vice Minister So Nam-sin.
All of this leaves the usual questions unanswered: to what extent North Korean citizens and officials (many of whom live in stove pipes starved of information) really know about the human rights abuses that occur in their midst; how China, in violation of Article XVI of the 1995 China-UNHCR Treaty on the treatment of refugees can continue to use refoulement to repatriate North Koreans to execution, forced abortion, enslavement or torture and continue to refuse access to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to the border areas; and whether the diplomatic efforts of the UK, the EU, and individual parliamentarians have borne any fruit.
One person who does believe that North Korea is “showing signs of change, different from its past” is Sun-Young Park an assemblywoman in the Liberty Forward Party of the National Assembly of the Republic of Korea.
In 2012 I hosted her visit to the UK Parliament. She has made it her mission to ensure that the plight of women like Jeong-ai Shin and Jeon Young-Ok, and the system which produced these stories, is not forgotten.
Sun-Young Park, does, however, believe that a gradual change is underway, which she attributes to the increasing flow of information into the country and because of the role played by those who have left: “More over, their defecting style has changed from the past. In the past most of them defected alone due to hunger.” Today, she says people are increasingly leaving because of the oppressive system.
Whether or not change is underway, I must record that during my own visits to North Korea I have been able to urge the authorities to address widespread concerns over public executions, torture, child labour, trafficking of women, and religious persecution – and would not have been willing to go their without agreement that both sides would be free to speak candidly and honestly to one another.
During my visits to North Korea, Baroness Cox and I left the North Koreans copies of U.N. and Human Rights Watch reports, urged them to open their prisons to international monitors and to invite the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights to visit North Korea.
How do the North Koreans respond?
Their response has been to deny the very existence of prison camps and the associated violations. They say that the international condemnations are politically motivated and fabricated and a response to their decision to withdraw from the Non Proliferation Treaty; that the history of their country is one of struggle for human rights; that human rights for them means ending the exploitation which their system overthrew; that the internal situation has deteriorated because of the collapse of the USSR and natural disasters; that the socialist belief in love and trust is the guarantor of human rights in the DPRK; that defamation and illegal acts could not be considered as human rights; that political prisoners do not exist, only criminals; that the UN Special Rapporteur merely wants to confront rather than co-operate; that they implement the Conventions on Torture and the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and discuss the ratification of other treaties but believe they would be used against them; that there was no need to create a national human rights commission as they had organisations which could receive complaints and petitions; that the South Korea abduction issue is a figment of the imagination; that malnutrition is a thing of the past; that women and children (“kings of the country”)have special protection; that the Constitution guarantees a fair trial; that the Party oversees impartiality and independence; that conditions in detention centres are the same as those outside; that illegal border crossings are linked to anti-state forced as will be strictly punished; that trafficking is a crime and would be punished; and that public executions are only used for very violent crimes.
In September 2011, 30 human rights organisations came together, to dispute North Korea’s response and pledged themselves to break the silence.
The International Coalition to Stop Crimes Against Humanity in North Korea has brought together an alliance of actors involved in North Korean human rights issues and is one of the broadest global movements ever. It’s long overdue.
One of the most significant failures of international engagement with North Korea is that it has been overwhelmingly focused on security issues with little or no linkage to human rights questions.
Yet, there are 3 million to 4 million North American Koreans, and there is a small Korean Diaspora in the United Kingdom. Just as the Jewish community galvanised international opinion about life in the Soviet Gulags, the Korean Diaspora needs to catch our collective imagination and create a worldwide movement for change-a process in which we should assist.
It is often said that the North Korean regime has managed to exist behind a wall of secrecy; that it treats the international community with contempt by refusing to allow outside observers into the country
But first hand witness accounts like those of Shin Dong-Hyok are a clue to the mass of evidence pointing to serial crimes against humanity.
The experience of 1989 in the Soviet Union is one that should give us encouragement.
Mikhail Gorbachev himself the grandson of a gulag survivor, ultimately consigned the gulags to history and one day the gulags of North Korea will be consigned to history as well.
Thomas Jefferson believed that tyranny always gains a foothold when we shrink into studied silence and Dr.Martin Luther King summed up the corrosive effect on our own character when we fail to speak out and fail to protest: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter
4 So.What More Should We Do?
First, Koreans can feel greatly encouraged by all that has been achieved in the Republic of Korea; and work and pray that the Korean nation will achieve unity, peace, prosperity and dignity for all its citizens.
Over the summer I have been reading Kim Dae Jung’s “Prison Writings” and his widow, Lee Hee Ho’s, “My Love, My Country.”
In 1950 Kim describes how he was in Seoul when the North’s troops captured the city and how, as he was walking to a Catholic church, three North Korean soldiers and a lynch mob grabbed and dragged away a young man, demanding his execution: “This event helped me have form anti-communism. I felt he dangers of communism more directly than by reading 1000 books about anti-communism.”
Thirty years later, in 1980, Kim Dae Jung had been imprisoned again and this time he was sentenced to death by the South’s military dictatorship.
During Kim’s court appearances – bracketed by military policemen – he was handcuffed and forced to appear in prisoners’ uniform. Describing how he was held in an underground cell, denied a lawyer, and interrogated each day for 15 hours, he said: “The intention was to make me go insane. I could hear someone moaning in a room next to me. I was stripped naked and forced to wear worn-out military fatigues. I was threatened with torture.”
Lee Hee-ho described those years of imprisonment, house arrest, and persecution as “truly an Orwellian world of illegal brutality – acting as if they would never have to answer to history of God for their barbarity.” She described how supporters of democracy were “Deprived of any clothing they were mercilessly pummelled with wooden bats, deprived of sleep, and had water poured into their nostrils while hanging upside down like so much beef hanging from hooks in the slaughter house. Listening to these stories of horror, my body shuddered with indescribable indignation and sorrow.”
Yet Kim Dae Jung insisted that “even those who used to oppress and those who used to take things by force must be freed from their sins and allowed to participate. Then politics will become art.” Heobserved that “the real purpose of politics is to guarantee the rights and life of the oppressed” and reiterated his belief in “democracy, social justice, economic development, national security and the unification of our fatherland.”
During what Kim’s friend, Cardinal Stephen Kim described as “the long dark tunnel of dictatorship” the decision of church and civil society leaders to resist dictatorship required great courage.
In 1987 Cardinal Kim was ordered to hand over pro-democracy students, taking refuge in Seoul’s Myungdong Cathedral. He responded in trenchant terms: “If the police break into the cathedral, I will be in the very front. Behind me, there will be reverends and nuns. After we are wrestled down, there will be students.”
It proved to be a turning point and the government removed the police.
This grandson of a man who had died for his beliefs fully understood the gravity of the moment, later recalling: “I thought that allowing police to enter the cathedral compound to take away students was the critical juncture that would decide whether Korea went along the path to democracy or extended military regimes”(see: https://www.davidalton.net/2012/07/14/two-korean-kims-two-remarkable-and-brave-men/ ).
What I conclude from these stories is that in North Korea we need a Helsinki Process – with a Korean Face . The key will be engagement, encouragement, travel, communication, and persistence: the use of soft power.
This approach is about healing history and creating a future.
Throughout the Cold War we understood the importance of preserving a strong and united front, and a declared willingness to defend our values, with a commitment to the Helsinki Process – challenging ideologies and tyrannical systems.
Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan stood together in supporting the Helsinki Process.Throughout the Cold War, the West countered Soviet aggression with formidable defences. Simultaneously, the West elevated discourse on human rights and fundamental freedoms.
The Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, known as the Helsinki Final Act, Helsinki Accords or Helsinki Declaration, was the final act of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe held in Helsinki, Finland, during July and August of 1975. Thirty-five states signed the declaration, which was an attempt to improve the relations between the Communist bloc and the West.
Throughout the Cold War, alliances were formed between dissidents, religious leaders, democrats and human rights activists. The Helsinki principle of critical engagement, dialogue, strong deterrence of attempted aggression and the insistence of respect for human rights defeated tyranny.
In March 2003 in a debate in the House of Lords I argued that:
“By championing the cause of those who are suffering in North Korea, the international community will create the conditions for the establishment of democracy ….Learning the lessons of [the] Helsinki [process], we must do nothing to licence the regime in Pyongyang to commit further atrocities against its own people. We should enter negotiations which guarantee human rights, such as free exchange of people and religious liberties … By linking the present crisis with the human rights violations, a crisis can be turned into an opportunity. To do nothing about North Korea would be the most dangerous option of all.”
“Helsinki with a Korean Face” is a proposition which Baroness Cox and I set out in the three reports we published following our visits to the DPRK.
In 2003, such an approach was among the recommendations in our report, Finding a Way Forward, where we said that a Helsinki-style we should link security and human rights issues. We called for the formal ending of the Korean War, the creation of an American diplomatic presence in Pyongyang, and a sustained elevation of human rights concerns. At Panmunjom, on the 38th parallel which divides north from south, and where the 1953 Armistice was signed, in 2003 I wrote in the visitors book that it is “better for men to build bridges than to build walls.”
Since then Lady Cox and I have quietly persisted with constructive, critical engagement, mindful of the old Korean proverb that “to begin is to half complete the task.”
Year by year we have been building up a consensus around new forms of engagement.
In 2004, in Parliament, I told the House of Lords:
“I believe that hard-headed, Helsinki-style engagement is worthwhile. The Helsinki Final Act 1975 linked foreign policy to basic human rights principles. That measure recognised that increasing the pressure for human rights, in combination with a firm policy of military containment, could act as the catalyst for change. The history of the DPRK suggests that mere threats will be counter-productive, inducing paranoia, isolationism and the destabilisation of the region. … However, the regime knows that the status quo is not an option. The DPRK now needs a face-saving exit strategy.”
In 2009, after our second visit and our report, Carpe Diem-Seizing the Moment for Change, we reiterated these recommendations along with a series of other proposals. President Obama missed that opportunity but US Presidential strategists should give it fresh consideration.
We, who enjoy freedom, should use it ceaselessly to shine a light on individual cases and situations. South Korean human rights groups have been methodical in telling the stories of suffering and laying the truth bare: this needs to continue and evermore links made with parliamentarians around the world – as happened during the Helsinki Process. The European Union should provide resources to North Korean refugees and journalists to enable them to share their stories with a worldwide audience. It’s our job to break the information blockade.
Making human rights a pivotal issue has also been advocated by the American North Korea expert, David Hawk. In his 2010 report, Pursuing Peace While Advancing Rights: The Untried Approach to North Korea, he says:
“It is the approach that has yet to be tried in North Korea”.
In pursuing such an approach, Lady Cox and I make our third visit to North Korea in October 2010 – and in “Building Bridges, Not Walls” we once again set out the case for constructive but critical engagement and for Helsinki-style engagement and I would urge you to read our report – especially our exchanges on access to the camps, capital punishment and the conduct of trials:
That exchange illustrates how a determined co-ordinated Helsinki-style approach could be deployed by European and other democratic Governments and Parliaments.
Advocating the use of “soft power” should not be confused with being a “soft touch” . It needs to be hard headed and focused.
In dealing with the former Soviet Union Margret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan clearly understood that. Throughout the Cold War, the U.S. had a presence in Soviet Union and its satellites, and also in China – allowing it to pursue the Helsinki process of human rights engagement and to see both economic liberalisation and political reform.
The US has been mistaken in not pursuing a comparable approach with North Korea. If there hadn’t been an American Embassy in Moscow there would have been nowhere for the Siberian Seven to take refuge; if there had been no US Embassy in Beijing, where, in 2012, would the brave blind human rights activist, Chen Guangchen, have fled?
Britain, to its credit, has had an Ambassador and embassy in Pyongyang since 2000 – and this has enhanced our ability to engage the country’s leadership and to influence its future. Our diplomats have been widely admired for their thoughtful diplomacy and their refusal to give up on finding a peaceful way forward. I have been urging the BBC to match the diplomacy by beginning a Korean radio service – and I am actively involved in educational exchanges and in supporting Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, founded by the remarkable South Korean, Dr.James Kim (see
It is often said that the North Korean regime has managed to exist behind a wall of secrecy; that it treats the international community with contempt by refusing to allow outside observers into the country. But how much real effort have we made to have a coherent approach?
First hand witness accounts from the many who have now left North Korea, like those I have documented – and increasing levels of communication with those who live there – are a clue to the mass of evidence pointing to egregious crimes against humanity.
The Helsinki activists were inspired by the increasing willingness of significant figures to openly express their dissent. I think principally of the academician, Andrei Sakharov, and the role of Jewish Refuseniks, like Vladimir Slepak.
Gradually this gave courage to others, like Alexander Ogorodnikov. and to those who disseminated underground Samizdat publications.
Throughout the Cold War divergent ideologies were pitted against one another but in defeating communist ideology we combined wisdom with strength, self restraint with a dogged patience and worldwide alliances were formed between dissidents, religious leaders, democrats and human rights activists.
And just as Keston College and Jubilee Campaign did in the former USSR we, who enjoy freedom, should use it ceaselessly to shine a light on individual cases and situations. South Korean human rights groups have done a wonderful job in telling the stories of suffering and laying the truth bare: this needs to continue and evermore links made with parliamentarians around the world – as happened during the Helsinki Process. The European Union should provide resources to North Korean refugees and journalists to enable them to share their stories with a worldwide audience.
For 60 years, the Korean peninsula has longed for a lasting settlement based on justice, peace, reconciliation, coexistence and mutual respect. Instead its people have experienced suffering, division and threats.
Whatever outside observers may think of the ideology or the system in North Korea, they should not confuse this with an unthinking hatred of North Korean people. They are a fine people who deserve much better. They deserve a liberalised economy, the implementation of the UN Conventions to which the DPRK has already committed itself, the development of an independent judiciary, a just penal system, an open society and freedom from fear. Above all, they deserve peace – and this I believe will only happen when we tenaciously pursue a robust and different strategy from that pursued hitherto.